Unless you’ve visited the Big Bend before, there are no words that can adequately describe the region and you won’t understand until you drive through what is often labeled Old Florida. This is the Sunshine State as I know it, with a distinct transition from concrete jungles and corporate big box stores to pine forests and Mom & Pop shops. As you creep closer to the coast, cabbage palm, pine and cedar trees fill the wetlands and cover the numerous keys created by the complex salt marsh.
When you make your way through the small communities that dot this area you will realize that time does in fact stand still—particularly without cell phone service, which can often be the case this far off the beaten path. From the Aucilla River south to Cedar Key, this 85-mile stretch of wilderness is known as the Hidden Coast, as it is so far off the map it practically hides from time. The laid-back atmosphere here is the same as it has been for decades, with little change thanks to the locals who work so hard in preserving these authentic coastal communities.
Once we find a concentration of redfish and trout we deploy the Power-Pole and it is usually game on!
The Hidden Coast is long known for its incredible abundance of fresh seafood and history of harvesting the bounty. These sleepy, rocking chair pace towns are also holding in the recreational angling department, as they are all surrounded by barrier islands anchored by rich and healthy oyster bars. Adjacent to these islands are some of Florida’s most pristine grass flats, but getting to them is no easy task. Filled with high banks and winding finger channels, the shallows here are well protected. Accurate navigation is a must and something that will not come overnight. Direction and rate of tidal fluctuations vary greatly as a result of the coastline’s contours, so unfamiliar boaters must proceed with extreme caution. Add to the fact that there are only a few sparsely populated communities along the Hidden Coast, and for the most part these fish see very little pressure.
Whether you visit Steinhatchee, Keaton Beach, Horseshoe Beach or have your own slice of paradise, you will surely have a memorable experience. Cedar Key is my home and one that is rich with forgotten history. It is not your everyday Florida coastal town. Here, quaint streets lacking traffic lights are lined with small shops, local eateries and art galleries, and create an all-around peaceful atmosphere. Our pace is slow, “island time” as it is often called, so if you’re interested in going back in time 50 years while still having access to incredible angling opportunities, Cedar Key is the right place for you!
Time the tides right here and you will be in trout and redfish heaven, with both low and high water offering varying options for staying connected. Our trout fishing is top notch and our redfishing is guaranteed. Much of the Big Bend is this way because of the area’s unique watershed of flowing rivers and associated tributaries. These salty deltas provide ample forage to sustain healthy redfish and trout populations.
When fishing the region in the spring season it’s best to keep things simple. These fish don’t see the pressure as most other venues around the state, but that isn’t to say they won’t be spooky or that they’ll readily jump on any lure you present. These are still wild animals that feed when they want depending on weather and tidal fluctuations, but when the bite goes off here it really goes off!
The Waccassassa River just south of Cedar Key is a very small river that is rustic and rough cut. It is shallow and narrow, but holds a ton of redfish and trout throughout the winter, so as the spring season progresses anglers can expect these fish to transition to habitats outside the river. As you approach the rivermouth there are two different types of fishing styles. To its south you will find a maze of mangroves and gin clear water with near perfect grass flats interlocking with rocky edges. To the north, creeks filled with rocks, oysters and walls of spartina grass make for the dominant habitat. Here the water takes on more of a stained, dingy creek color with sandy and shelly edges loaded with rocky flats. Because the territory is so harsh, shallow drafting tower boats enable anglers to navigate safely and fish the shallows most effectively.
A short boat ride to the north of Cedar Key will place you in the historic Suwannee River and all of its natural beauty. The Suwannee also holds lots of fish during the winter months and as the spring hits the area really comes alive! Actually, the entire stretch of coastline surrounding Cedar Key is basically one giant grass flat intermixed with a maze of channels, creek mouths, oyster bars and marshy points. During the spring these areas practically guarantee fish during flooding tides. Like many venues around the state, redfish move up to feed on the newly submerged real estate. When fishing high water you won’t typically run into massive schools, rather smaller pods, but there will be wads of them all over the place. Casting a topwater, gold spoon or weedless jerkbait along the shoreline will also connect you with stud trout.
When the tide starts to fall the fishing doesn’t have to end, which is a good thing since there are only two tides per day. When the tide ebbs the fish transition to nearby potholes, channels or sloughs, but pinpointing promising spots in this vast shallow water ecosystem can be difficult. If you are unfamiliar with the area, a dropping tide can really put you in a bad situation and make for nervous navigation. However, if you are fortunate to experience a negative low tide and get low, low water at the right spot and at the right time, you will be in for the angling adventure of a lifetime! When this happens you can literally hook fish on every cast.
No matter your approach, sight fishing with spoons, spinnerbaits, topwaters and soft plastics is the way to go. If you prefer live bait pinfish are great, but anyone who can make a 40-foot cast with a spinning rod will be extremely successful with artificial lures.
As a rule of thumb we only fish reaction style baits in the spring and can really whip them out on 7-foot medium-action spinning rods outfitted with a 3000 or 4000 series reel loaded with 20 lb. braid. Because the flats are so vast we often search with a trolling motor, fan casting the points and bays while trying to cover as much water as possible. Once we find a concentration of redfish or trout we deploy the Power-Pole and it is usually game on! The fish gravitate to certain structures depending on the availability of forage and water, and when you find a few you can typically guarantee there will be more cooperative fish in the vicinity.
While the shallows are full of life they can be treacherous to safely navigate, so if you are new to the area or just visiting it is in your best interest to hire a local guide who is familiar with these waters. Once you leave the marked channels most of the outer keys are surrounded by extensive shallow grass flats, but venture closer to the coast and you will have to deal with unforgiving hard bottom.
While Cedar Key and the surrounding coastal communities provide incredible enjoyment, it’s critical we care for the fragile environment. If you have yet to visit the area and experience this piece of angling paradise and its laid-back style of life, Cedar Key needs to be your very next travel destination.